To leave or not to leave - that is the question - facing millions of voters in Britain and in the north on June 23rdwhen they decide whether to stay in or leave the EU.
The referendum on EU membership was proposed just over three years ago by the British Prime Minister, David Cameron. He had warned that unprecedented levels of immigration were: ‘undermining support for the European Union’ within Britain. And for the Tories there were issues around welfare payments to immigrants, closer EU co-operation and increasing political union among EU states.
It was and is a high risk strategy for Cameron given the deep divisions around Europe than lie within his own party. At least six Cabinet members, including the Secretary of State for the north, Theresa Villiers, are now part of the ‘leave’ campaign. And Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London and a rival for leadership of the Conservative party, has become the effective leader of the leave campaign.
Several months ago Cameron agreed a deal with the EU that he claims meets his demands around reducing welfare and child benefit payments to immigrants; provides for the ability to curb immigration into Britain; and rejects closer political links to the EU. He claimed that the deal means that Britain will: “never join the Euro, never be part of its bailouts, never join a European army or a European superstate”.
But whether he can win the referendum is another days’ work. A series of opinion polls have repeatedly shown that the British public is split almost evenly on the issue. In the north Sinn Féin, the SDLP, Alliance and Ulster Unionist Party oppose Brexit. The DUP, TUV and UKIP want to leave.
With the Executive now established Sinn Féin will be campaigning for a Yes vote to remain in the EU. While Sinn Féin believes there is a serious democratic deficit within the EU and seeks a different kind of social Europe, nonetheless we also believe that the north is best served being part of the EU.
The political and economic implications for the island of Ireland if Villiers, and Arlene Foster persuade the voters to back Brexit are enormous. It could have potentially devastating consequences, especially for the border region.
The British Secretary of State has ridiculed concerns that Brexit would see controls imposed along the border. But her arguments rang hollow. The border, which has in recent years become largely invisible, would become the EU’s only land border with Britain - a non EU country. All other such borders are marked by checkpoints and border controls. Why would this border be any different?
April saw the 18th anniversary of the signing in 1998 of the Good Friday Agreement, which was then endorsed in referendum north and south. The peace process and the Good Friday and subsequent agreements, have led to a political and economic transformation. The border is largely irrelevant; and families, farmers, tourists and business people travel freely and frequently. As a consequence the economy of the island is benefitting.
The potential damage that a return of border controls could create is deeply worrying.
The current debate around Brexit presents the most serious economic challenge to the border region since partition. It also can significantly damage the wider economies of the two states on the island.
More than €1 billion is traded each week in goods and services between this State, the north and Britain. Much of this is in agriculture. That’s almost £150 million each day in trade. That’s a lot of jobs and a lot of wages.
In the north the end of the Single Farm Payment for farmers would result in a loss of €2.5 billion euro. AndBritain exiting the EU would mean an end to the Rural Development Fund, Structural Funds, and PEACE Funding.
The north would lose €982 million alone in Structural Funds which are crucial for Small and medium businesses, community regeneration and community groups.
In addition the introduction of trade barriers between the Irish state and Britain would cost jobs.
There is also considerable concern that Brexit will see the British government introduce legislation to make it clear that the British Parliament is sovereign and that British courts are not bound by the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union. This will have profound implications for citizens in the North and, in particular, our ability to use the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union as a defence against punitive British legislation. David Cameron has also stated his desire - and it was part of the Tory Party manifesto - to replace the Human Rights Act.
The implications of the Tory plans to repeal the Act and reject the current oversight role of the European Convention on Human Rights are enormous for the administration of government, for justice, policing and equality in the north.
It is also a direct attack on the Good Friday Agreement and the international treaty signed by the British and Irish governments which gives legal affect to the Agreement.
Under the terms of the treaty between Ireland and the Britain, which incorporates the Good Friday Agreement into law, and is lodged with the United Nations, the British government is obliged to complete the incorporation into law in the north of the European Convention on Human Rights.
The Agreement also commits to safeguards to ensure that the Assembly and public authorities in the north cannot infringe the European Convention on Human Rights. These safeguards also apply to policing.
When Sinn Féin asked the British Secretary of StateTheresa Villiers, if the British government would replace the funding which would be lost to the north as a consequence of withdrawal by the British state from the European Union; she refused to answer. The reality is that no British government is going to make-up the gap in funding that Brexit will create.
The fact is that the case for Brexit is not motivated or sustained by alternative and better strategies and policies. Instead it is the product of a growth in influence by narrow inward looking nationalism linked to conservative, Tory ideological interests and the crisis over refugees.
Sinn Féin will be campaigning in the June 23rdreferendum in the north to oppose Brexit. I would invite others, in political parties and business to join with us in that effort and to strive to win the argument for continued EU membership.